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San Jose Mercury News -- Excerpts
Dec. 08, 2003

By Curt Anderson
Associated Press

"WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has sharply increased prosecution of terrorism-related cases since the Sept. 11 attacks but many fizzled and few produced significant prison time, a study released Sunday finds."

Terror cases often fizzle. "About 6,400 people were referred by investigators for criminal charges involving terror in the two years after the attacks, but fewer than one-third actually were charged and only 879 were convicted, according to government records reviewed by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse."

"The median prison sentence was just 14 days, according to a study by clearinghouse co-directors David Burnham and Susan P. Long. Only five people were sentenced to 20 years or more."

..."Of the 879 people convicted, 373 [5.8%] went to prison. Of those sentenced to prison, 250 got less than a year, 100 got less than five years and just 23 were sentenced to five years or more."

The median is the numerical midpoint, that is 50% is less and 50% is more. Of 6,400 people investigated, 439 were sentenced to two weeks or less of time. Only 7% received longer sentences. 66 of those convicted served no time.

More than 68% of those referred for investigation were not charged.

"Critics seized on the numbers to question whether Attorney General John Ashcroft and other top law enforcement officials have been overstating the success of their anti-terrorism efforts. Nearly every time Ashcroft talks about the subject, he reads a long list of statistics on arrests and convictions to buttress his contention that great progress is being made."

"Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee with oversight of the FBI and Justice Department, said the report 'raises questions about the accuracy of the department's claims about terrorism enforcement.'''

"Justice Department and FBI officials said the study is rooted in past conceptions of crime and punishment and does not reflect the reality that would-be terrorists seek to blend into society until they are ready to strike."

That they do. And the point of the Patriot Act is to make it possible for the Department of Justice to investigate, charge, and convict suspects using means prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. We want to eliminate terrorism as badly as anyone else. But the perspective is distorted if one thinks the fight against terror makes it necessary to give up Constitutional rights. See Terror Perspectives and Eroding Civil Liberty.

First of all, the Patriot Act was not needed for any of the above. Second, Freedom of speech and freedom from search could well come under ever greater attack and disappear altogether if the present regime gets an extended run toward a dynasty. This could happen courtesy of a packed Supreme Court, a compliant Congress, and voter apathy.

Secondly, put terror in perspective. As a cause of death and property damage, terrorism does not hold a candle to automobiles in traffic accidents. There is one difference: the fear factor. Everyone fears terror; indeed inducing fear is its specific purpose. We drive with confidence, too often with overconfidence, too rarely with the continuous nervous alertness called for. Does it make sense to fear a minor hazard while we ignore much bigger ones? See Terror Perspectives for more on this perspective.

Thirdly, terror is such a motivator, it led a Congress to rubber-stamp folly in Iraq and then vote an 87 billion bailout package. That amount of money is about $4,300 for every goods-producing American; each of some twenty-two million such persons must generate that much extra cash. The real cost of Iraq so far is at least double that.

..."Prosecutors believe it is better to get suspects off the streets [by minor charges] and press them for information than to wait for events that could produce harsher penalties. They also said the study makes no mention of the value of intelligence collection and the need to reward cooperation with lesser sentences."

"'The whole point is to disrupt terrorism at an early stage instead of letting the conspiracy fully hatch,' said Viet Dinh, a former top Justice Department official under Ashcroft who now teaches law at Georgetown University. 'We cannot take the risk of the conspiracy taking place. What you get is shorter sentences but greater prevention.'''
It also drives conspiracies underground.

"In other words, for every would-be 'shoe bomber' such as Richard Reid -- serving a life sentence for trying to light an explosive on a Paris-to-Miami flight last year -- there are many more suspects such as the group of Yemeni-Americans from Lackawanna, N.Y., who were convicted of supporting terrorism by briefly attending Al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan."

And a far larger number still who are completely innocent. An illegal alien or a turncoat is one thing. An American citizen is quite another. The Patriot Act now includes each class--constrained only by the suspiciousness of the Attorney General.

..."Still, critics of Justice Department anti-terrorism policies say the study lifts the veil on what they consider large-scale government deception aimed at reassuring an American public fearful of more attacks." ..."During the two years before Sept. 11, 2001, 24 people were sentenced to five or more years in prison on comparable terror-related offenses, the study said."

Think about this. 23 people were sentenced to long terms after 9/11; 24 during the two years before. The name of the game is in detection, not in the tools of punishment.

Where is the evidence that our detection ability has improved?


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